A Lady Soldier Receives her Back Pay: 1864

A female Lieutenant


We desire to record the incident which occurred at the Executive Mansion on Tuesday last, which was witnessed by Hon. Charles Case, a member of the Thirty-sixth Congress of the United States, from the Tenth or Fort Wayne (Indiana) district, and from whose lips we have the following story. While calling upon the President on the day referred to, a modest young girl, apparently about twenty years of age was ushered into the room in company with an orderly, bearing a letter from the Paymaster General’s office, and in a few words she related her story. Born of poor, but honest parents, she resided in Jefferson township, Huntington county, Indiana. Her name was Mary E. Wise. At the beginning of the war her parents both died, and her only brother enlisted in the 34th Indiana Regiment. Being thus deprived of her protector, and left entirely alone in the world, she determined to join the army and thus be enabled to follow him. Procuring a disguise, she succeeded in being accepted as a private soldier, and through two long years of arduous service, during which the regiment engaged in several severe battles among which was that of Stone river, she prevented the discovery of her sex, although she never failed to perform her duty as a soldier.

At the battle of Stone river she was wounded slightly in the arm, but recovered and again entered the ranks without being detected. At the terrible charge of the regiments of Western troops, at Lookout Mountain, however, she was badly wounded in the breast and all her secret was ascertained by the surgeon. She was carefully nursed for some time, and as soon as she was able to travel was dismissed the service and returned to her home in Indiana, having first been so marked upon the arm as to render re-enlistment impossible. Five months’ back pay was due her, but upon application the paymaster declined to allow it, on the ground that there was nothing in the regulations that would permit him to pay a United States soldier of the female sex. Hence her visit to Washington and her call upon the President. After patiently listening to her statement, the President, who was deeply interested wrote a note to the Paymaster General, saying that, as she had faithfully served as a soldier for two years, and received the pay as such for the greater part of the time, he could see no good reason why she was not entitled to the remainder, and therefore directed payment of the balance, concluding with the assurance that, if hereafter it would be found to be contrary to the regulations, he himself would be responsible for the amount. The young lady retired, well pleased with her interview, and started for her home in Indiana the next day, having fully accomplished the object of her visit. Washington Chronicle.

Providence [RI] Evening Press 17 September 1864: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Since this is “Veterans’ Day” in the United States, Mrs Daffodil thought that the story of a lady soldier of the American Civil War would interest. It is shameful that such a gallant soldier had to petition the President of the United States—in this case, President Abraham Lincoln—to intercede so that she could  receive the pay she had already gotten for two years. Mrs Daffodil is always puzzled how lady soldiers passed as male, living and sleeping in close quarters with men who either shaved daily or grew luxuriant beards. Perhaps facial hair was applied with spirit gum.

The note about Miss Wise being marked so that she could not re-enlist refers to the practice of tattooing a persons with India ink. Usually the tattoo was applied to deserters or other malefactors.

Mrs Daffodil has written before on Elizabeth Thorn, “The Angel of Gettysburg,” and a “munitionette,” aiding the war effort in a munitions factory. Both of these women—and hundreds of thousands of their compatriots—received scant recognition despite doing their duty at considerable personal cost. Mrs Daffodil, had she a hat on, would take it off to them and to all men and women who have served their countries.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



2 thoughts on “A Lady Soldier Receives her Back Pay: 1864

  1. David Lynn Wise

    This is a wonderful and inspiring story in many aspects. Is there any way to know if Mary Ellen Wise is related to the Wise families of Brown County to whom I am distantly related and for whom Wise Hollow is named?


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Mrs Daffodil regrets that she is not a genealogist, merely a collector of historical oddments, and cannot speculate on a putative link to your family. Perhaps an inquiry to the keeper of military records would be fruitful?
      Best wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil



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